Becoming an infectious disease specialist

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Getting to know the village children in TanzaniaAn infectious disease is an illness that can be transmitted from person to person. There are several different causes of infectious diseases, including parasites, fungi, bacteria and viruses. Infections can develop in all areas of the body including the heart, brain, lungs and bones. Some infectious diseases, such as the common cold, are easily identified and treated; however, an infectious disease can also be complex and difficult to diagnose and treat. An infectious disease physician is a doctor who is an expert in diagnosing, treating and preventing various types of infectious diseases.  

Responsibilities of an infectious disease physician

In most instances, infectious disease doctors will not treat patients with routine infections. Most family practice doctors or internal medicine specialists can take care of routine infections. In some cases, expert knowledge is needed to treat an infection. Patients who are usually referred to a specialist have infections that have not been identified or are hard to treat.

One of the responsibilities of an infectious disease doctor is to make a diagnosis. There are probably thousands of organisms that can lead to an illness. The diagnosis is not always apparent. Infectious disease doctors have to be part detective in order to follow the clues and make a diagnosis. Infectious disease doctors perform physical examinations and take a medical history. They order many different types of diagnostic tests, such as x-rays and blood, mucus and urine cultures.

Once a diagnosis is made, determining the appropriate treatment is next. Infections may require medications, such as antibiotics, anti-fungal treatments and antiviral drugs. In some instances, infections may be so severe surgery is needed to remove infected tissue or organs. Infectious disease physicians prescribe treatment and work closely with other specialists, such as surgeons, but they do not perform surgery themselves. 

Training to be an infectious disease doctor 

If becoming an infectious disease specialist sounds like something you are interested in, you will need to earn a bachelor’s degree, which should include science classes, such as anatomy and chemistry. The next step is completing four years of medical school. Infectious disease doctors will first complete a residency in internal medicine, which is usually three years long. After residency, a two to three-year fellowship in infectious disease is next. For those who are interested in working as a pediatric infectious disease specialist, they may choose to become board certified in pediatrics first, which requires a three-year pediatric residency followed by a three-year pediatric infectious disease fellowship. After completion of the fellowship, physicians may take an exam administered by the American Board of Internal Medicine and become board certified in infectious disease.

Working conditions and salary

Infectious disease specialists work in medical centers, public health agencies and in private practice. In addition to treating patients, they are often involved in research to track diseases. Infectious disease doctors may also find employment in state and federal government agencies and universities.  

Salaries for infectious disease doctors vary widely. The type of agency or organization a doctor works for as well as their years of experience play a part in salary. The average salary for an infectious disease physician in 2012 was $177,000 a year. 

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